Tuesday, September 08, 2009


Women in nonfarm labor force (from Current Employment Statistics establishment data; excludes agricultural workers and self-employed) - for most recent month available:

  • July 2009: 49.87% of labor force (previous month: 49.80%- adjusted)

Female-headed households - unemployment rate (from Current Population Survey household data):

  • August 2009: 12.2% (12.6% in July)

Women age 65 and older (from Current Population Survey household data):

  • August 2009 percent of population in labor force: 13.6% (22.1% for men age 65 and over)
  • August 2009 unemployment rate: 6.7% (6.9% for men age 65 and over)
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A colleague recently brought a troubling trend to my attention. She works at the New Directions Career Center, a not-for-profit organization that provides career counseling services in central Ohio, with a focus on serving the needs of women in career transitions or re-entering the workforce.

In their 30-year history, they've seen their target audience change significantly based on the growth of women's participation in the labor force and the economy. Of particular concern to them in the past year has been the influx of older women, 65 to 84 years of age, either retired or widowed, who are entering or being driven back into the workforce by the current economic climate and the loss, in many cases, of pensions and/or health benefits. Their oldest female client right now is 80-plus years of age.

In addition to the career coaching and job search services NDCC provides, their counselors have been challenged to help these "seasoned" women confront a whole new set of fears. These clients are afraid - afraid that they will not be able to find employment, or employment that will pay enough for them to make ends meet. The clients worry that they won't be able to find a job with health benefits or be able to afford them if they're offered. And they worry about whether or not they'll be able to handle the work in office environments that have changed significantly in the past 20 years. In particular, these older clients worry about being able to learn how to use the technology, fairly certain that they will be ridiculed because of their lack of computer skills.

It turns out that workforce participation among older workers does tend to move up in periods of recession, for many of the same reasons are we are seeing now. But in March 2009, 12.8% of women age 65 and older were in the workforce, the highest participation rate for women in that age bracket since the federal government began computing reliable unemployment rates (1948), and a 147% increase since 1977 (BLS, 2009). (For men age 65 and older, the increase since 1977 has been 75%).

The economic challenges women face as they age are well documented; when compared to similarly aged men:
  • older women workers are less likely to be living with a partner or spouse (62% vs. 80% for men), and are more likely to be on their own when it comes to household resources. (1)
  • older women are less likely to have had continuous employment throughout their adult lives, affecting both their record of work experience and their contribution to Social Security or pension funds. (1)
  • older women are more likely to be working part-time (25% vs. 8% for men), and not necessarily by choice: 16.9% of women age 60-64 report being underemployed, vs. 12.1% of men the same age. (2)
  • older women (age 55 to 59) workers are more likely to have no expectation of retirement benefits (40% of women vs. 27% of men) and are more likely (43% of women vs. 30% of men) to report that they are working because they need the income to pay day to day living expenses. (3)
  • older women employees generally live in households with lower family incomes than their male counterparts ($64,444 vs. $80,839). (1)
  • for older female workers, the wage gap in hourly rates is 69 cents for every dollar earned by a man. (1)
The general labor statistics covered by the media every month rarely drill down into the nuances of the numbers; the focus in this current recession has been on job losses experienced by men. It takes the folks at the front line, like the counselors at NDCC, to help us understand the complexity of the employment picture and the challenges faced by women, in this case, older women, that reflect the impact of long-term gender differences in the workplace.

  1. Bond, J., Galinsky, E., et. al. (2005). Diverse Employment Experiences of Older Men and Women in the Workforce.
  2. Slack, Tim and Jensen, Leif. 2008. "Employment Hardship among Older Workers: Does Residential and Gender Inequality Extend into Older Age?" Journals of Gerontology, 63(1): S15-S24.
  3. Living Longer, Working Longer: The Changing Landscape of the Aging Workforce - A MetLife Study

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